Here is the dilemma. You’re a well-respected scientist. You decide that you want to write a popular science book to bring your field and your research to the masses. However, a straight, logical presentation of the facts and the theories is too dry. We need to break it up a bit, add a bit of human interest.
So tell a story! Stories make us want to keep reading to find out how it ends. You decide to give some anecdotes, or even a historical overview. For the period of time during which you were in the field, this is easy – you can simply give a personal history of your interactions with the scientists involved, the ideas proposed, and their reception by the community. However, if you want to go back before your career started then you’ll need to rely on historical sources. Here lies the problem: you’re not a historian. As a scientist, if you read a paper published 20, 50, 100 years before you entered the field, you do it because the information is still relevant to your work. You don’t do it to get a fair and balanced sample of the intellectual climate at the time.
Your popular science book has now strayed out of your field and into the history of science. History is a very subtle subject – it deals with people, lots of people. People are complicated. If you’re not careful, you might end up repeating convenient, popular myths that reduce personalities to caricatures and events to fables.
Given the title of this post, you may have guessed that I’m about to accuse Susskind of precisely this allegation. Keep in mind – overall, his book is highly recommended. I am literally taking issue with a couple of footnotes. And, as I keep reminding you, I’m no historian either. I’ll do my best to quote from actual historians of science.
Around the Medieval World
Repeat after me: people in the Middle Ages did not think that the Earth was flat. Twice in his book, Susskind suggests that people only started believing that the Earth was round when it was circumnavigated, either by Magellan (page 67) or Columbus (page 160). This myth has been debunked so many times. It’s on Wikipedia’s “List of common misconceptions”. The best TV show ever joined the cause. The ancient Greeks not only knew it was round, but Eratosthenes made a very good estimate of the Earth’s diameter in 240 BC. In 1945, the “Members of the Historical Association” published a series of pamphlets titled “Common Errors in History”, the second of which says: (more…)